Standardized bottle systems?

Frank Ackerman (
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:13:53 -0500

This is really one of those "back to the future" ideas -- in the past,
when U.S. bottlers used refillables, the bottles were generally
standardized, and could be returned for deposit to any bottler. Refillable
deposit/return bottles were universal in this country in the 1930s, and
still had substantial market share into the 1960s. Innovations in
aluminum canmaking and plastic bottlemaking, along with growing
monopolization of beer and soft drink industries, and promotion of an
instant gratification/throwaway ethos, eventually undercut the use of

Once the concentration of bottling/brewing industries takes place, so that
there are fewer bottle-filling facilities, average transport distances to
and from the plants are longer, and the environmental advantage of
refillables diminishes. Both short average distances (i.e. many small
local plants) and high return rates are needed to make it environmentally
advantageous to deliver beverages in anything as heavy as a refillable
bottle. These conditions are generally met in Europe and urban Latin
America, but are more problematical in the U.S.

For more on this, see the report by David Saphire, "Refillable Bottles: An
Idea Whose Time Has Come Again", from INFORM in New York City, and
Chapters 6 and 7 of my forthcoming book, "Why Do We Recycle? Markets,
Values, and Public Policies" (Island Press, December 1996). As I describe
in my book, the lass mass marketing of refillable bottles to individual
customers in the U.S. was done by Anheuser-Busch in New England, and they
discontinued it in early 1995 because of customer resistance (even though
the local plant manager was well aware that refillables were cheaper for
the company). Today, refillables are used in the U.S. in scattered niche
markets, and to some extent in "on-premise" bar and restaurant beer sales,
where bottle return rates are much higher than in "off-premise" sales to

It would be great to believe that we could reconstruct the infrastructure
and consumer behavior that made refillables viable in the past (and still
do elsewhere). However, it is a challenging task, requiring antitrust
action against major beverage companies and reestablishment of local
bottlers, as well as creation of consumer demand for refillables.

Frank Ackerman
Global Development and Environment Institute
Tufts University